Friday, April 12, 2019

Q&A with Susan L. Ross

Susan L. Ross is the author of Searching for Lottie, a new middle grade novel for kids. She also has written the middle grade novel Kiki and Jacques. She lives in Connecticut and Maine.

Q: You note that Searching for Lottie was based on your own family's experiences. At what point did you decide to write this novel?

A: Our son did a middle school project on my mother's experience as a Holocaust refugee, and I was struck by how much it meant for him to learn about our family 's history. In Searching for Lottie, I wanted to take a fresh and contemporary approach to a difficult but essential topic for kids to absorb.

My middle name, Lotte (German spelling of "Lottie"), was given in memory of my mother's cousin, a lovely young woman who did not survive. Like Charlie in the book, I grew up looking at her photograph and wondered about her life. I also pondered, as Charlie does, whether I somehow needed to live Lotte's life through my own.

Another family member, Magda Szemere, was a renown violinist in Europe before WWII, and I inherited her music journals. One day, I pulled her papers out from a dusty box at the back of my son's closet and Googled Magda's name. 

To my astonishment, I discovered that her gramophone recordings had been preserved in archives in Europe and America. She had tragically perished, but her music had lived on.

I began writing Searching for Lottie with the intriguing notion that our family history was both further away and yet more accessible than ever.

The enormous expansion of research possible on the internet offers kids endless resources to explore, but in addition, children today have the ability to ask questions that were simply too painful for my generation. 

I hope Searching for Lottie will help encourage this kind of discourse.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the actual history and your fictional characters?

A: The wonderful thing about fiction is that it frees a writer to explore themes and develop characters while creating an engaging story, without being tied down to an exact historical record. Nearly every scene in Searching for Lottie was inspired by family stories. 

The only balance I truly worried about was writing a children's book that addressed the tragedy of the Holocaust but remained accessible and not too frightening for younger kids.

While working on the book, I uncovered the fate of the "real" Lottie. Since this is a book for kids, however, I was glad to give the story a more hopeful ending. 

Charlie finds clues in her research online -- but ultimately, it's the information she is able to piece together from her grandmother and other relatives that matters most; this inter-generational theme is at the heart of this story. 

Because I'm a bit of a history geek, though, of course I loved throwing in as many historical touchstones as I could for kid readers.

Q: Did you know much of this family history growing up, or did you learn about it gradually as an adult?

A: To be honest, I knew surprisingly little about our family history growing up, and I've found this to be typical of refugee families. In reflecting on our own family, I was struck by the fact that my dad never knew his Russian father's original surname; we only knew for certain that it was changed to Ross, presumably at Ellis Island.

This purposeful turning of the page and trying to erase the past was common. The past was too difficult and too sad to bring up, so in large part, it was simply buried and left behind. 

I hope that kids reading Searching for Lottie will be inspired to access family stories and preserve them while grandparents and older family members are still able to share their precious memories.

In writing the book, I conducted much the same research as Charlie to help solve the mystery of what happened to Lottie, i.e., online searches, library research, poring over old photographs and other artifacts, and putting together snippets of family tales. 

In Searching for Lottie, Charlie wonders whether Lottie may have been stuck behind the "iron curtain" during the Soviet era in Hungary. 

While my husband and I were living in Budapest after the fall of Soviet Union, we met the daughter of the family who had sheltered the "real" Lottie's aunt -- she had survived the Holocaust but remained in Hungary, finally escaping in 1956, hidden in a train carrying coal. 

I finished the book in awe of the extraordinary women in my family. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: I hope that kids will both begin to learn about the tragedy of the Holocaust and also feel empowered to talk to family members about their own histories. All families have stories, and this book is meant to speak to kids of many different backgrounds who will hopefully relate to Charlie's quest.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next project returns to my roots in Maine. I'm working on a middle grade mystery set in 1927 on the beach where our family has had a cottage for over 60 years and where my father saw Charles Lindbergh land the Spirit of St. Louis when the new airport was fogged in. There are plenty of lobsters and a boy whose dream is to fly. 

Like all my writing, though, this book is also about a child growing up and discovering his own path in the wider world.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Searching for Lottie won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and is a PJ Our Way Book Selection. Background information, photographs, and a clip of music from Magda Szemere is available on my website

I'm on Twitter at @SusanRossAuthor. I teach writing and love working with schools -- I am always happy to Skype with classrooms! 

My debut middle grade, Kiki and Jacques, a Refugee Story, is a friendship tale about a refugee Somali girl and a boy in Maine -- and is recently available in paperback.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment